Kawhi Leonard proving why he belongs atop MVP leaderboard

TORONTO -- The NBA's Most Valuable Player award is officially given out based on how players perform over the course of the league's 82-game regular season. In truth, though, the narratives that frame the race are set by the time Christmas rolls around.

With less than three weeks until the holiday, Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard -- who finished with 36 points, nine rebounds and five steals in a 113-102 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in a scintillating performance Wednesday night -- continues to show why he should be leading this year's race.

"It never gets old," Raptors guard Danny Green said, "when somebody can make the game easier for you."

Leonard doesn't just make the game look easy for his teammates; he makes it look easy -- period. There is no better example than when, midway through the fourth quarter, Sixers guard Ben Simmons caught the ball at the high post. As he did, one of the NBA's best passers noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jimmy Butler was seemingly wide open on the wing, waiting to catch the ball for a 3-pointer.

When Simmons tried to slip the ball out to Butler, Leonard was there, getting his enormous right hand on the ball, deflecting it away and controlling it all at once. Then, as the ball bounced back up off the floor, he tapped it over to a streaking Pascal Siakam, who raced down the middle of the lane and slammed the ball through the hoop.

"That's crazy," Siakam said later when asked about the play, accompanied by both a smile and a shake of his head. "That's crazy ... that's something you can't explain.

"That's just him. I don't think anybody else can do that."

That wasn't the only time such a thing could be said about Leonard's play Wednesday night. As Leonard was masterful at both ends of the court throughout, it was hard to remember that as recently as a couple of months ago, it was unclear what version of Leonard was going to show up north of the border.

Last season, of course, Leonard was sidelined for all but nine games because of tendinopathy in his left quad, an injury that precipitated his departure from the San Antonio Spurs. When the Toronto Raptors traded for him this summer, there were questions about whether the version of Leonard that existed before -- the league's best two-way player -- would ever return.

It has taken six weeks for those thoughts to be permanently erased. In their place are images of Leonard making one ridiculous play after another and reminding everyone who might have forgotten just how dominant he can be when he's right.

"The guy, he's talented, man," Siakam said. "I think people forgot that a little bit, how talented he is, the things he can do at the level he can do them at. Not just [score] but be on defense and guard the best guy on the team, get steals and do all those other things.

"It's fun to watch."

As the Raptors butted their heads up against the ceiling of truly being one of the NBA's elite teams in recent seasons, a player such as Leonard is precisely what they lacked. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan formed one of the NBA's best backcourts, but neither could ever be looked at as a true MVP candidate.

Leonard, though, unquestionably is.

Sure, there are plenty of other contenders, and some of them put on their own fantastic performances Wednesday night. LeBron James had 42 points to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a win over the San Antonio Spurs. Stephen Curry posted the same number as the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. Anthony Davis had 27 points, nine rebounds and five blocks to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a blowout win over the Dallas Mavericks.

But Leonard has something over all of them: He is the best player on what, so far, has been the NBA's best team. Leonard has helped Toronto to its league-leading 21-5 record in part by playing some of his best basketball in some of the Raptors' biggest games.

He has scored at least 30 points seven times this season. Five of those games have come against three teams: the Sixers, the Warriors and the Boston Celtics.

"I think, for him, it's interest level," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said with a smile. "Like all of us, there's bigger games than others.

"He's an immense talent ... he really is. And when the stakes go up a little bit, he's going to play his hand a little harder."

It doesn't hurt that the Raptors are now a full two months into the season, and Leonard is clearly starting to get his legs back underneath him. He had several massive dunks in this game, including one jam in the second quarter that shook Toronto out of what, until that point, had been a stupor whenever a Raptor had come within several feet of Sixers center Joel Embiid in the paint.

As recently as the first game against Philadelphia on Oct. 30, those dunks wouldn't have been nearly as forceful -- and might not have been dunks at all.

"I just think he's getting a little more juice back in his legs," Nurse said. "It's evident. He's just getting back."

This version of Leonard -- the one averaging 26.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game -- is precisely what Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri was envisioning when he swung for the fences and traded for him this summer, despite Leonard's having just one year remaining on his contract and having offered no assurances that he is willing to stay in Toronto.

Ujiri was willing to bet that Leonard would get back to the level he played at before. He was willing to gamble that, like the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Paul George, he could convince Leonard to remain in Toronto next summer with 10 months to recruit him day-in and day-out.

More than anything, Ujiri knew that a healthy version of Leonard had the potential to be the best player in the world.

That's why, with Leonard leading the way, this Raptors team seems like it could be a different one come playoff time than the group that has wheezed its way through the past several postseasons.

"I try to perform every night," Leonard said. "I've said this before: If you try to turn it on against the good teams, it's really hard to do that. You've got to do it on a nightly basis, whoever you're guarding, whoever you're playing.

"Games like this ... this could be a playoff team, an opponent in the future. I don't really see it, though. I just try go out and play every night."

Playing like he has so far this season should have Leonard atop the league's MVP leaderboard. If he -- and the Raptors -- keep playing this way, he should end the season in the same place.